Szechuan Sessions

Try Mala Tang's chili approach

As the name of his Merrifield restaurant, Uncle Liu's Hot Pot, suggests, Liu Chaosheng is a master of bubbling, cook-your-own hot pots.

But though the chef's new Mala Tang restaurant in Ballston also focuses its menu on the same deeply spiced stews, you should save room for starter plates, starring the blissfully tingly Szechuan peppercorn.

The menu's early pages feature hot and cold xiao chi, small plates of Chinese street food. Each dish is offered either with searing mala spices or in a milder soy preparation.

Dan dan noodles ($7) are the peppery bolognese of Chinese food. Chaosheng rouses his minced pork with a house soy sauce, Szechuan chili oil, the prickling peppercorns and a wisp of green pea leaves.

Ground pork fills the delicate curls of spicy wontons ($6), with chili oil and a spray of scallions. Crisp pan-fried Chengdu dumplings ($6.50) burst with tender beef and bok choy. Spicy cold egg noodles ($7) tangle with snappy bean sprouts, sliced cucumber and scallions in a blistering chili bath. Next month, Chaosheng will debut even more small plates at his weekly xiao chi brunch.

The restaurant's crimson interior sets the mood for a chili-laden meal, but we prefer settling in for breezes and jasmine iced tea ($2.50) on the newly opened patio.

Mala Tang, 3434 Washington Blvd., Arlington; 703-243-2381 or mala-tang.com